Tuesday 29 August 2017

Knitted into a seductive whole: Lully's Armide from Christoph Rousset & Les Talens Lyriques

Lully: Armide - Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset - Aparte
Lully Armide; Marie-Adeline Henry, Antonio Figueroa, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset; Aparte
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 25 2017 Star rating: 5.0
Lully's final opera in an engagingly stylish and passionate performance

Lully's Armide has done very well on disc, with versions from William Christie, Philippe Herreweghe, Ryan Brown. This latest recording from Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, on Aparte, was recorded live at the Philharmonie in Paris with Marie-Adeline Henry as Armide, Antonio Figueroa as Renaud plus Judith van Wanroij, Marie-Claude Chappuis, Marc Mauillon, Douglas Williams, Cyril Auvity, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro and Etienne Bazola, and the Choeur de Chambre de Namur.

Armide was Lully's last collaboration with Quinault. It premiered in 1686 the year before Lully's death in a rather cooler atmosphere than his previous operas. Under Marie de Maintenon's influence Louis XIV's court had turned to devotion rather than pleasure, and the fact that Lully managed to get caught in an affair with one of the King's music pages certainly did not help things, and Armide was not premiered at Versailles. But the opera remained popular with the opera going public with regular revivals during the 18th century.

Lully's musical style was hardly innovative, but combined with Quinault's finely structured librettos the results can charm and seduce particularly here when, to a modern audience, the plot seems rather less diffuse than in some of Lully's operas. The main elements of the piece concern the hero Renaud during the First Crusade. He alone seems to be able to resist the sorceress Armide's power, and she resorts to magic to seduce him but then finds herself troubled that Renaud's love is not of his own volition. Cue some striking scenes, the people of Damascus celebrating Armide's victory, demons transformed into flying zephyrs, Armide putting Renaud to sleep, her calling upon Hate (La Haine), the monsters which terrify the knights trying to rescue Renaud, and of course all the seductions of Armide's arts.

Lully's music is very dance-based in style and Christophe Rousset and the orchestra are on dazzling form, playing in a stylish, seductive manner. The sense of dance runs its way through the music, creating a real feeling of the style of the work, and Rousset has a real knack with phrasing Lully's music to bring out the best.

Renaud is not the most dramatic of heroes, his heroics in Act One are all off stage and he spends much of the opera under Armide's spell, including the famous scene where he is asleep. Antonio Figueroa sings stylishly with a nicely heroic tang to his voice. He is undoubtedly lovely in the quieter moments, but we are also aware that he is a hero, albeit one under a spell.

Armide is a wonderfully contradictory creature, and Marie-Adeline Henry really brings this out, she has the plangent power to make us understand that Armide is a sorceress not to be trifled with, but then can suddenly melt at the thought of Renaud. It is her desire for his love, without any form of magic, which is the main engine of the plot. Henry is superb in the great scene at the end of Act Two when she finds that she cannot bring herself to kill Renaud. Lully's contemporaries found this scene strangely challenging but for us, with its flexibility between recitative and arioso, it is one of the highlights.

The other roles are relatively small, but one notable one is La Haine (Hate), who Armide conjures to help her. Ultimately she banishes the creature without taking its aid, but not before a thrilling scene, and here Marc Mauillon makes a very striking La Haine, full of venomous character.

The smaller roles are all very strongly cast, with many singers playing multiple roles. The chorus too makes a strongly characterful and stylish contribution, relishing the various guises which Lully and Quinault gives them.

Lully's score is made up of many striking moments, from the sleep scene, to the great Act Five passacaglia to pleasure, and along the way we have some finely performed moments whether it be Armide invoking Hate, or nymphs attempting to seduce the knights trying to rescue Renaud (and very seductive they sound too). But Rousset's skill is in knitting all of these into a seductive whole, always with a feel for the innate style of Lully's music. That this was recorded live, means that we have the added frisson to the performance which seems to make it only more exciting.

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) - Armide
Armide - Marie-Adeline Henry
Renaud - Antonio Figueroa
Aronte, La Haine - Marc Mauillon
Hidraot - Douglas Williams
Artemidore - Amiliano Gonzalez Toro
Ubalde - Etienne Bazola
Judith van Wanroij
Marie Claude Chappuis
Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset (director)
Recorded live at the Philharmonie de Paris, 10 December 2015
Aparte AP135 2CDs [75:00, 74:00]

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